Along a dirt road near the San Juan River in the Navajo Nation, some fields are lush with corn, melons and alfalfa, but many others are filled with dry weeds.
They are a reminder that the Gold King Mine spill a year ago left behind dried-out crops and lost business for the tourism industry across a broad swath of the Four Corners. Its reach extended into New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and the Navajo Nation.
The state of New Mexico is suing the Environmental Protection Agency and mining companies for damage to the river, endangered fish and the tourism economy. The Navajo Nation also has threatened to sue. While the governments seek compensation, small farmers on the Navajo Nation remain uncertain and skeptical about their water supply, and some are pushing for a backup water system so they can be protected from ongoing pollution.
“The pace and the atmosphere and the spirit of the farming is like day and night compared to what it was one year ago ... One year ago, we were engaged in farming with the expectation of huge yields in the end ... This year is filled with many anxieties,” said Joe Ben Jr., who is raising alfalfa this year.
Surrounded by expansive, harsh desert, the San Juan River valley is carpeted with green cottonwoods and small irrigated farms. Shiprock is home to most of the family farms on the Navajo Nation, and the image of the mustard-yellow water sparked fear and uncertainty in people who have farmed their entire lives.
While La Plata County farmers started reopening their irrigation ditches when the EPA announced metals had returned to pre-event levels about nine days after the spill, some people on the reservation waited more than 20 days and others didn’t reopen their ditches at all, choosing instead to let their crops dry up.
And learning that heavy metals perpetually drain from the mines above Silverton didn’t calm those fears.
Because the pollution has been ongoing for so long, there is concern the water is always going to be contaminated, said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Shiprock Chapter. Chapters are the Navajo Nation’s form of local government.
Although the spill resulted in enough furor that the mining district is likely to become a federal Superfund cleanup site, some don’t believe clean water will come from the river to irrigate crops for a while.
Ben is irrigating this year, but he was inspired to write the federal government and request an alternative irrigation system after seeing metals oozing from the mountains.
“One engages in these types of contingency plans when they are knowledgeable about the dangers,” he said.
Ben farms near Shiprock in one of the communities that chose to close its only source of irrigation water, the Hogback Canal, for a year. Only after University of Arizona assistant professor Karletta Chief and her team independently tested the sediment was the canal reopened this spring.
Fighting for a solutionBen, a Shiprock farm board representative, raised the alarm last year about the EPA hauling in water contaminated with an oily substance after farmers stopped using river water. He is leading the campaign for an alternative water delivery system that would serve Shiprock and two other tribal communities.
He would like to see the project provide water for six months during the growing season.
In mid-July, the tribe signed an agreement with the federal government to study the feasibility of such a system.
The federal government has set aside money for the study, but it must determine which water delivery system is the most feasible, said Marlon Duke of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Once the feasibility study is done, it will be up to the Navajo Nation to decide how to move forward and identify funding, Duke said.
Many options have been discussed, including bringing water from the Navajo Indian Irrigation project that starts below Navajo Dam, upstream of the confluence of the San Juan and Animas rivers. Above the confluence, the San Juan River doesn’t have the same level of pollution.
One early estimate showed the project could cost about $170 million, Yazzie said.
Deciding to farmIt’s not the first time the river has been visibly polluted. William Foster, now in his 60s, has lived on the reservation his entire life and remembers four pollution events. When he was a teenager, the river was filled with yellow grease. His family and friends didn’t know what it was and he can remember swimming in the pollution.
There were two major mine blowouts in the 1970s documented in The Durango Herald and there have been others.
Foster has farmed his entire life, but it hasn’t been his sole occupation. He is retired from Shiprock Associated Schools and also worked as a uranium miner and police officer.
This summer, he planted corn, tomatoes and squash among other crops for his family, but he doesn’t plan to sell them at the farmers market.
The irrigation canal that serves Upper Fruitland Chapter, Nenahnezad Chapter and the San Juan Chapter, where Foster lives, was reopened Aug. 28, 2015, because most of the farmers demanded it, said Rick Nez, president of the San Juan Chapter.
Foster aired on the side of caution and lost some crops last year.
Some people are still hauling in water regularly for their crops and livestock, Nez said.
After contaminationThose who saved their crops had trouble selling them because customers were worried about contamination, Nez said.
Nez would like to see EPA staff visit to help those farmers who lost crops apply for compensation, especially because many of them are elderly.
The Navajo Nation has not offered financial help, Yazzie said.
The Navajo Nation did not respond to requests for comment about farming losses.
“That funding possibility is nowhere ... it’s not even on the table,” he said.
At the flea market on a hot Saturday afternoon in mid-July, Buck Wallace Jr. was the only one selling zucchini, or produce of any kind.
So far, he has fielded only a few questions about contaminated water, and he tells people he used Shiprock tap water to raise his crops. But he feels more confident about the safety of the irrigation water after learning about the spill from Chief, the professor who tested the Hogback Canal sediment.
Wallace expects to sell his crops in Arizona towns including Kayente, Window Rock and Tuba City.
“I know I can get rid of it quick,” he said.
Yet the turmoil left by the pollution is likely to last far beyond the harvest.